For the past four years, the face of “Press Virginia” has been hard-working, intense Jevon Carter. And now that he and backcourt mate Daxter Miles are gone, Mountaineers coach Bob Huggins admits to being a little nervous. “Can you tell?” he says. “Plus the schedule is much harder. It’s much, much harder.”
It’s certainly not easy. In addition to the usual Big 12 round-robin that includes Kansas, West Virginia will play Florida in the Jimmy V Classic and visit Tennessee for the Big 12/SEC Challenge.
Yet WVU is used to such grinds — and used to success. Last season, the Mountaineers finished second in the Big 12 regular season and runner-up in the postseason tournament for the third year in a row, at one time rising to No. 2 in the polls. Oh, and Carter? You can now block him out of your mind. Literally. The new face is Sagaba Konate, the Mountaineers’ sensei of swat.
“We have the best rim protector in the country at the back of the press,” Huggins says.
Konate, who was invited to the NBA Combine before returning to school, leads a strong West Virginia frontcourt that also includes returning starters Esa Ahmad and Wes Harris.
At a Glance
HEAD COACH: Bob Huggins
2017-18 RECORD (BIG 12): 26-11 (11-7)
2017-18 POSTSEASON: NCAA: Lost to Villanova 90-78 in the Sweet 16
F Teddy Allen (7.0 ppg, 2.7 rpg)
G Jevon Carter (17.3 ppg, 4.6 rpg, 6.6 apg)
G Daxter Miles Jr. (12.9 ppg, 3.1 apg)
Start with Konate, whose blocks were must-see TV. Not only did the 6'8", 260-pound junior swat 116 shots — many of them two-handed pins — but he also led the Mountaineers in rebounding at 7.6 per game and was third in scoring at 10.8. “He’s continued to get better,” Huggins says. “He’s continued to increase his shooting range. He’s as good of a shot blocker as there is in college basketball. He’s a little bit leaner. He had a really good summer.”
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The logjam behind Konate is a nice problem for Huggins to have. If fouls arise, the coach can turn to four-star freshman Derek Culver, sophomore Andrew Gordon or junior Logan Routt.
The coach is hoping Ahmad will have a breakout senior season. He was a former two-time Player of the Year in Ohio. Insiders are also expecting a breakout for Lamont West, a possible NBA selection because of his 3-point shooting. Harris, a defensive specialist, returns after starting all 37 games.
WVU added four-star wing Emmitt Matthews, who initially signed with Connecticut.
Even without Carter and Miles, there’s little panic in WVU’s camp. Returning is junior James “Beetle” Bolden, who averaged 8.7 points and converted 41.1 percent of his 168 3-point attempts last season.
“He’s one of the better shooters we’ve had at West Virginia,” Huggins says. “He’s one of the better shooters to play here. He’s gotten stronger.”
Also, Huggins likes redshirt freshman point guard Brandon Knapper — if he’s cleared after a summer pulmonary scare. Freshman point guard Jordan McCabe was a YouTube sensation because of his ball handling and 3-point wizardry. Jermaine Haley could run the point at 6'7".
In addition, the 6'7" Matthews could play on the perimeter. Also, the Mountaineer coaches believe shooting guard Trey Doomes could pan out to be the most productive of all the newcomers. Sophomore Chase Harler, one of three in-state products on the roster, adds shooting and experience.
Although West Virginia’s backcourt will be young, Huggins finally seems to have the numbers and depth to create tempo as he wishes. The coach shouldn’t have to worry about protecting players from foul trouble. The only concerns seem to be the health of West, who is recovering from wrist surgery; Bolden, who has had high ankle problems; and Knapper.
If all are well, expect WVU to again be a factor in the Big 12 and reach the NCAA Tournament for the 10th time in 12 years under Huggins.
Postseason Prediction: Sweet 16
Big 12 Prediction: 3rd